Thursday, May 8, 2014
Over the past decade global press freedom has experienced an alarming downward spiral. According to a report released this week by Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank, only 14 percent of the world’s population - one in six people - live in societies in which there is honest coverage of civic affairs, journalists can work without fear of repression or attack, and state interference is minimal. Far too often today, the media present a regime account of developments in which the opposition case is ignored, distorted, or trivialized. And even in more pluralistic environments, news coverage is frequently polarized between competing factions, with no attempt at fairness or accuracy.

By: Leon Willems and Arch Puddington

Especially troubling is that in an era when sources of information and interpretation are growing exponentially, the trends towards a more restricted and less ethical press is gaining ground year-by-year.

The reasons for the worrying state of press freedom are complex. But one of the most important, if least appreciated, are patterns of media ownership that are contributing to biased, unprofessional, and in extreme cases propagandistic journalism.

The best-known, and most dangerous, ownership model is the controlled business arrangements that are found, most notably, in Russia and Venezuela. Ownership is dominated by a combination of state entities, businesses tied to the state, and oligarch cronies of the leadership. In Russia, the state owns, either directly or through proxies, most major television networks, as well as national radio networks, important national newspapers, and national news agencies. It also controls many of the regional and local newspapers and periodicals across the vast country.

At its worst, oligarch cronyism enables the regime to develop a centralized information strategy that amounts to a modern form of propaganda whereby all important media are speaking a similar vocabulary, demonizing the same enemies, and presenting the same arguments in support of the leadership’s actions. A propaganda model, we would stress, that is far more persuasive than were the stale and repetitive methods of the past.

A second model consists of media owners who, either out of fear or a desire to ingratiate themselves with the political leadership, fail to support and protect their journalists. On one level we see examples of this in societies like Mexico, where narcotraffickers and corrupt officials often determine not simply how an issue is to be covered but whether certain subjects will be dealt with at all. A second example is Egypt, where, despite an explosion of new news outlets after several ‘Tahrir square’ changes in government, media chiefs have competed as to who ranks as the most loyal supporter of the changing authorities, most lately the restoration of military rule.

A third case consists of the vertically organized conglomerates that control both media and non-media enterprises. Unlike traditional companies of even larger media conglomerates, family controlled or other, these new multi-faceted business conglomerate operations often have no principled commitment to news coverage as anything beyond a profit-generating part of the broader enterprise. Especially in settings where the political leadership employs economic leverage to influence press coverage, the conglomerate model is vulnerable to intimidation. A prime example of this phenomenon is Turkey, where press freedom is on the decline despite an impressive number of newspapers, journals, and television stations. In Turkey, media ownership is highly concentrated, with a few major private holding companies subtly applying pressure on editors and journalists at their outlets to refrain from coverage that could harm their broader business interests, including criticism of the government or potential advertisers. The state of media freedom has declined to the point where the latest Freedom House report describes the media environment as not free.

There are also worrying signs in democratic societies where legal protections for journalists are strong and overt political intrusion uncommon. In the United States, the major sources of television news are dominated by the conglomerate model. At the same time, there has been an explosion of internet media start-ups, polemical blog sites, and highly opinionated talk radio shows. The result is a two-tiered, and increasingly unequal, information culture. For a narrow elite who have the time and expertise, the market offers an unprecedented variety of high-quality news sources. For the rest, what passes for journalism is often little more than shrill polemics or tabloid sensationalism.

In the Netherlands, ranked highest in the Freedom House Press Freedom index for the first time this year, some worries remain. Local and regional media are hardly able to survive and hold municipalities and provincial authorities to account. Also the legal arrangements for source protection for journalists as well as legal protection of whistle blowers should be improved.

Worldwide the protection of journalists and the soft economic pressures on media are the critical spheres that threaten improvement of press freedom. Renewed commitment to advocacy, research and media development is needed to reverse the current trend.

To be sure, in the democratic world there is a recognition that media freedom conditions are under pressure. The internet is increasingly played host to genuine news sites and some newspapers that seem to be making headway at developing a model that can ensure financial stability in the new media age.

Unfortunately, the space for self-reflection and critical commentary is steadily shrinking in the world’s authoritarian environments. Dmitry Kiselyov, the chief information strategist for the Russian government, has recently wondered aloud why in democracies the word, propaganda, has such negative connotations. That someone of Kiselyov’s influence would defend state propaganda decades after Goebbels and Stalin departed the scene is indicative of the challenge that confronts freedom of expression and honest journalism.

Leon Willems is Director of Free Press Unlimited. Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House.